Sometimes when we adopt new ideas in education, it takes a while during the implementation stage to figure out where the balance is. Some of you may remember “whole language”. While the actual research into whole language pedagogy never suggested that phonics was not an important part of reading, the early implementation of the pedagogy got a little messed up. Once we took the ideas of whole language and developed a more balanced approach to learning, things got better.
As the educational community has moved more towards “student-centered learning”, “learning by doing” and “student voice and choice”, we do need to remember that teachers can still tell kids that there are “must dos”. It is choosing when and where to implement the “must dos” that is tricky and requires extensive teacher knowledge and professionalism.
Recently my math teachers and I went to a session with Marian Small ( a well-known mathematics guru). A teacher in the audience lamented that her grade 9 students couldn’t cope with proportional reasoning because they didn’t know their multiplication facts. Small’s response was: Teach them. As a more problem-based math environment is being implemented in Ontario there is confusion about math facts. And, students who are perfectly capable of knowing them with greater automaticity arrive in grade 7 without that skill. It makes fraction work very difficult.
In primary language classes across the western world, primary students are encouraged to write long before they know how to spell or use proper capitalization and punctuation. This is a good thing. The problem is that at some point there needs to be an expectation that they apply correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization as they are writing. We get students arriving grade 7 believing that it ok to write without any capital letters, periods or paragraphs until the revision stage. It is an efficient practice and no writer I know would ever make so much work for themselves.
So we have decided two things: we will insist that most students learn their number facts and students will write using periods, capitals and paragraphs as they go in the first draft. It is not a choice. Students need to know how to do this. We will see what happens.
It makes me think, however, about when and where student voice and choice should come into being and how we interpret this as teachers. It reminds me of parenting. I always gave my children a choice about the pajamas they wore. I never gave them a choice about going to bed. In classrooms we want to make sure that we are providing multiple entry points into learning and opportunities for students to express their voice through choice. But, we also need to remember that we, as teachers, get the big picture. There are times when we need to have “must dos”; when we need to ensure that students are having the specific opportunities that we know will ensure success.